England & Wales Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance

All change?


There is currently one political story in town – and it is not the local elections. The forthcoming EU referendum is dominating the news agenda and, as Janet Sillett points out, the result will have widespread ramifications for local authorities, the services they deliver and the devolution agenda. Councils must make sure that the voice of local government is listened to as the debate rumbles on.

What will local government look like in two years time? In five years? In twenty? Of course that is impossible to answer. There is so much going on, so much changing – devolution, the EU referendum, the radical changes to local government finance – the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

Can we make some sense of what is happening in localities? As more areas are putting forward their proposals there seems to be a shift in the debate from what should be devolved to how and what structures are needed. Clearly not every area is turning out as straightforward as Greater Manchester. Oxfordshire has highlighted some of these difficulties with two bids on the table – the four districts bid with new unitaries forming a combined authority and the county council abolished and the original one based on the county council. Alternative bids are appearing in other areas and individual councils are withdrawing from proposals. Where there are boundary issues involved (as in the new Oxfordshire proposal) public interest will no doubt be higher and the issue more contentious. Is this reorganisation by the back door?

Reorganisation has always been difficult and divisive. But this is even more complex given the devolution deals on offer, the continued enthusiasm by ministers for elected mayors, and the debate over whether shire areas will be getting a weaker deal than the cities. There is a sense of divide and rule – or at least some counties and districts may perceive that to be the case.

The flexibility to match new arrangements with the particular circumstances in localities is welcome, but balancing local solutions with a degree of coherence across local government isn’t going to be easy. Constant change would be counter-productive. Having a patchwork across England with no sense of there being a framework within which individual solutions can exist looks unsustainable.

Heather Jameson in MJ puts it like this:

“The clarion call of local government reformers throughout the years has always been that if you were starting from scratch you wouldn’t design local government like this. This is the chance to design from scratch – across the whole of public services.

Uniformity is not the answer – but we need a cohesive vision of the future”.

Where does any of this fit into the debate around the EU?

The EU referendum creates uncertainty, which will add to the uncertainty the devolution agenda generates. But more than that is the question of subsidiarity and decentralisation.

The EU referendum is already dominating the political agenda. Local government, however, has not featured yet – in the negotiations or in the national debate. Will that be changing? The result of the referendum will be hugely significant for local authorities. Local economies, employment, migration, public service delivery and procurement, and regulation are all fundamentally affected by the EU. Subsidiarity is at the core of the EU but in the referendum debate it seems to have been limited to the relationship between the EU and national governments.

It isn’t too late though to ensure the voice of local government is heard – not necessarily over whether we should remain in the EU or leave – but by raising issues around localism, local self-government and subsidiarity. These are issues across Europe, not just for the UK. And the debate itself should be an opportunity to underline that political sovereignty is about the local as well as the national. As underlined by Councillor Gordon Keymer, leader of Tandridge DC in Surrey and president of the Conservative and Reformists Group (MJ):

“The implications of being in or out are the greatest importance to local government.”

But he added it was also an opportunity for EU member states to review the EU’s relationship with its own localities.

“Perhaps the most obvious case is with devolution. Are powers really being devolved down to the levels closest to the people? Is adequate funding obtainable to run the services on which our residents rely? Local government must make sure its voice is heard not just in the UK but the whole of the EU.”

LGiU Chief Executive Jonathan Carr-West also pointed this out in the MJ:

“It’s also important to remember that political sovereignty sits at local as well as national level and is therefore compatible with continuing membership of the EU. Indeed the focus on national sovereignty within the debate could be seen as a challenge to local autonomy.”

It is far too early to say what the effect of devolution will be on England as a whole – and because it is an ongoing process, it may be impossible to answer this anyway. But the sector does need to think about what local government willlook like in a few years time, what the political impact will be and what will alter in the relationship between the centre and the local. We also need to ask if Brexit would shift the local and national dynamics. If we stay in the EU will a new generation of elected mayors have more status and influence here and within the EU and its institutions than we seem to have now as a sector?

Interesting times indeed.

Janet Sillett is LGiU’s Briefings Manager.